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Spring’s Festivals 2017

The 8th annual Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival (which I previewed here) ended this month with a party at the Hollywood Boulevard ballroom where the first Oscars ceremony was held (Wings won the Academy’s first Best Picture award). I’ve covered, moderated and hosted film festivals before. TCM’s festival is my favorite.

As I wrote this year, TCM’s Classic Film Festival is focused on the movies and with genuine respect for those who love them, really love them, for the artistry of motion pictures. Not that other festivals don’t have that aspect but TCM’s is driven by this passion and thrives on it. So, read my condensed report on the festival at LA Screenwriter, where you can also read my account of a rare, personal conversation with classic movies scholar and film historian Leonard Maltin. Maltin, whom I interviewed in 2015 about his Classic Movie Guide for TCM, introduced several pictures at screenings this year. Read my full, final roundup of TCM’s Classic Film Festival at The New Romanticist, where you can also read my review of Alfred Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which I saw on David O. Selznick’s nitrate print screening—adoringly introduced by Martin Scorsese.

I’ve also added three new reviews of classic comedies, which I saw during the festival at 35mm screenings in Sid Grauman’s recently renovated The Egyptian movie palace: Jack Conway’s scathing, sexual movie Red-Headed Woman (1932) and a pair of delightfully smart and savvy early pictures by German expatriate Ernst Lubitsch, the silent film So This is Paris (1926) and the Jeanette MacDonald-Maurice Chevalier musical One Hour With You (1932). Each of the three movies, part of TCM’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” festival theme this year, center upon male infidelity.

America’s largest literary festival, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, happens this weekend at University of Southern California (USC). With more than 500 authors, artists and intellectuals, the Trojans’ campus will be filled with various writers including Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Joyce Carol Oates and Chuck Palahniuk. Also in the lineup for various events, including book signings, conversations, panel discussions, lectures and interviews, are John Scalzi, Scott Simon, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Bryan Cranston, Roxane Gay, Dave Grohl, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Tippi Hedren, Marlon James, Clinton Kelly, Rep. John Lewis, Cheech Marin and Danica McKellar. The book fest takes over USC with cooking, musical concerts, poetry and children’s readings, and sponsor Center Theatre Group will provide a performance of songs from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is presented in association with USC, with main sponsorship from the Southern California Acura Dealers. Attendance to the festival is free at USC, which is adjacent to Exposition Park. Hundreds of exhibitors offer books and merchandise for sale, giveaways and activities. If you’re interested in more information, visit the Festival of Books official website. Read my thoughts on last year’s book fest here.

Movie Review: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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Dark, moody and subversively modern in the worst ways, yet undeniably alluring thanks to the magnetism of movie stars Jean Harlow and Charles Boyer and Adrian’s stunning gowns, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 79-minute Red-Headed Woman offers nonstop sexual suspense.

Played as comedy to smuggle its explicit sexual themes into the vibrant picture, which I saw in 35mm at the Egyptian during TCM’s Classic Film Festival, Red-Headed Woman is really more of a tragic, cautionary tale with touches of melodrama. Based upon Katharine Brush’s scandalous novel, adapted by one of H.L. Mencken’s favorite female writers (another was Ayn Rand, whose We the Living he hailed), Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman was a hit.

Like Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck—who wanted the lead in Red-Headed Woman (so did Greta Garbo, according to film scholar Cari Beauchamp, who introduced the picture), this story of a secretary using sex to gain power, money and status is astounding for its plain depiction of a woman whose self-esteem is based on objectifying herself, which is to say denying herself any authentic, reality-based estimate of her own value.

“If the barn door’s open,” Harlow’s harlot deadpans to Una Merkel’s best friend and roommate (one wonders if she’s also Harlow’s lesbian lover on the side), “what’s to keep a girl from goin’ in?” Slither on into the home of her boss businessman’s home she does, knowing that his wife (Leila Hyams) is out of town, seducing him with a conniving sense of delirious mission. As Lillian (“Lil” aka “Red”), Jean Harlow (Wife Vs. Secretary, Red Dust, Design for Living, Libeled Lady) is simply perfect. It’s not her look, as such, or beauty, that taunts boss man Bill (handsome Chester Morris) and drives him wild for sex. As with most sex-starved golddiggers, it’s her constant availability, daring desire and her radically open want for sex. He’s putty in her presence and, it’s hinted, they usually end up going at it on the floor, but every seduction is fully earned. Harlow, who purrs “Beeeeww” when she wants him to want her, pins the part in every scene.

Directed by Jack Conway with panache, Red-Headed Woman has powerful, propellant energy, and part of that emanates from the great performances but part of it also comes from the drama. A marriage is at stake and this sexual power-luster is hellbent to ruin it. Whether she succeeds, and what constitutes success, is the movie’s core. Setting every man from a “coal king” to a French chauffeur (Charles Boyer in an impressive turn) who may be her lowdown counterpart, in her crosshairs, the red-haired woman willing to prostitute herself that Bill’s father (Lewis Stone as the movie’s moral center) calls a “snake in the grass” gets exactly what she wants, it’s suggested, and probably, ultimately what she deserves.

“Do it again,” she tells a man after he slaps her to make her stop making him want to grab her and kiss her, adding with a well-timed punch of her own: “I like it.” Red-Headed Woman is an interesting portrayal of a woman of the flesh—neither endorsement nor repudiation, but stark and honest—who lets men have her so she can really let them have it. In this sense, it’s dark and cynical, an attitude that became prevalent in American culture. The hard and complex Red-Headed Woman, driven by coarse and severe delusions, breaches and titillation, at once dramatizes the slut with sex appeal and forecasts its own function as a culturally self-fulfilling prophecy.

Movie Review: So This is Paris (1926)

With his silent movie So This is Paris (1926), director Ernst Lubitsch, who had by then left Germany, directed Mary Pickford and become Warner Bros.’ first star director, delivers a true comedy of errors. The tale of two married couples, which I saw in 80 minutes at The Egyptian in 35mm during TCM’s 8th annual Classic Film Festival, with piano accompaniment and an introduction by film scholar Cari Beauchamp, is a loopy homage to the Parisian take on “love and liberty”.

It’s hilariously indulgent.

Monte Blue stars as a married man tempted to cheat on his romance novel-reading wife (Patsy Ruth Miller) with a loose woman and former flame (Lilyan Tashman) who lives across the street. But the wife plays a role in her own husband’s temptation as she’s the one who orders her husband out of the home after sexually fantasizing about the half-naked man (expressive Andre Beranger, stealing every scene) whose body catches her attention from across the way and So This is Paris carries on and on from there, singling no one out too much and letting everyone have a moment to flirt, play and be wronged. In fact, the whole movie, with a wildly eye-catching ball sequence complete with dancing the Charleston, is really about the human desire to play and let loose.

This hit for Warner Bros., which shows the early Lubitsch touch of lightness seeded with serious ideas, keeps pace and never lets up. The wife’s too lonely and wants romance to be real. The husband is stifled and misses his former flame’s sense of raucous abandon. The other couple, too, is a bit too playful for their own good and, with a traffic cop lurking, they’re bound to pay the consequences. Look for Myrna Loy as a housemaid, watch Beranger in every scene and pay particular attention to the Artist’s Ball scenes with the lively dancing. Most of all, enjoy the early American period for Ernst Lubitsch, before his other motion picture study of married life, One Hour With You, which also screened at the film festival. So this is a glimpse of the naughty, savvy, sexually-themed good humor with which he would make some of the most enduring and enriching movies ever made.

Movie Review: One Hour With You (1932)

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Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star with Genevieve Tobin as a temptress-best friend who’s double-crossing her gal pal to seduce the husband in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty One Hour With You. This is not as frivolous as it might appear.

With a deft, pre-Code sexual simplicity, terrific cast, rhyming dialogue, fourth wall breakdown and light, charming songs, it’s easy to see why One Hour With You demonstrates the Lubitsch touch. As with everything he did, Lubitsch adds a layer here and there to provide depth to the gay look, feel and music with real, complex attitudes about women, men, sex, friendship and marriage. Though George Cukor had already been asked by Paramount to direct, this movie became a pet project for Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, So This is Paris, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait (1943) To Be or Not to Be), who apparently bonded with Chevalier in his endeavor to re-cast the film for his own creative purposes.

The result, with Chevalier’s smiling, debonair doctor husband speaking and singing directly to the audience, is 80 minutes of one man’s account, perspective and philosophy of romantic love, which I saw at The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard in 35mm during the TCM Classic Film Festival. How One Hour With You begins—in France’s City of Lights, Paris, at a public park being policed for public displays of affection—is crucial as pretext for the surprisingly fabulous plot resolution. Doctor Andre (Chevalier) and his wife Colette (MacDonald) set the terms that wanting sex and being greedy to make love are utterly human and crucial for a healthy marriage. “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” is a standout tune for its easygoing wit and intelligence but all the songs are bright, cheerful and entertaining, even if at the root Mitzi’s (Tobin) seduction is both humorous (because it’s played as irony) and arresting (because it’s realistic).

So, it is not exactly that One Hour With You equivocates about infidelity (someone today is sure to call Chevalier’s smiling and singing “mansplaining”) or rationalizes its potential wreckage. This is a man of medicine who resists temptation, says “phooey” to the anti-sex police and knows a hussy when he sees one (and Tobin’s performance as the tramp is delivered with conviction). Andre loves Colette and all the songs, silk pajamas and Parisian airs, charms and sets only reinforce that he loves his work, life and sex, which only makes what happens perfectly understandable and, in a certain context, enjoyable. An hour can feel like a moment, One Hour With You demonstrates in melody, rhyme and lightness, and a moment’s yield to whim can lead to an hour’s agony. What to make of any given moment, and hour, is ultimately up to you.

Movie Review: Gifted

Gifted starring Chris Evans (Captain America) is foremost a movie about people of ability. This differentiates Gifted from most child-themed movies. The kid that plays the girl, McKenna Grace, is not precocious. In fact, the actress is very good in the role, with a sharp tongue that reminds me of a younger Quinn Cummings (Family, The Goodbye Girl) and, directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) working with Tom Flynn’s screenplay, hitting every mark without trying too hard or coming off like she’s a miniature 36-year-old. Gifted is better at dramatizing the psychology of guiding a life, and parenting a child, than it is at portraying philosophy in action.

Reuniting with his Snowpiercer co-star, Octavia Spencer (Black or White, Hidden Figures), Evans essentially plays himself; the likable, good-looking, sensitive, strong and silent type who does the right thing for the right reasons and does so without bravado. Here, he plays Frank, who’s raising his suicidal sister’s kid in a Florida home rented from Spencer’s character. He fixes boats, steps on Lego pieces and tries to protect the girl from whatever hard-boiled family secrets and mysteries linger in the past, which the audience knows they’re going to learn as this chipper, bright Fox Searchlight movie rolls along. Learn the audience does, with an elementary schoolteacher (Jenny Slate, who voiced Bellwether in Zootopia) pushing for answers to the puzzle of this exceptionally bright child, and a granny up north in Boston (Lindsay Duncan, Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass) who wants the best.

That secrets pit mother against son comes as no big surprise. The folksy wisdom is too pat, a false dichotomy underpins the plot’s conflict and a custody courtroom speech comes out of left field (even though it’s true, despite what the filmmakers may think). But the script’s sincerity wins you over in what plays as a kind of antidote to the Whiplash theme that being the best means pushing harder. With biting lines about bearded academics, porn producers and saying things we don’t always mean, Gifted, which unequivocally embraces making value-judgments for being one’s best, manages to be both thoughtful and moving (with help from a cat named Fred). Like Jon Turteltaub’s Phenomenon, Gifted gives being the best and brightest its due, dramatizing the tradeoff, too. And, while it doesn’t quite achieve the balance or serenity it seeks to showcase, it depicts that as the proper goal.